Episode 24 – Dr. Peter Kornicki (Cambridge)

Originally published on April 13, 2018

[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. Today, I’m talking with Professor Peter Kornicki, Emeritus Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Cambridge. Dr. Kornicki’s most recent publication is Languages, Scripts and Chinese Texts in East Asia, published by Oxford University Press in 2018. Professor Kornicki, thank you for talking with me today.

Peter Kornicki: I’m very happy to be here. It’s a lovely experience for me to be interviewed on a podcast. There’s a first time for everything.

TG: (Laughter) Well, I’m glad to be talking to you. Recently, you’ve been working on languages and scripts, and [your] previous publication was A History of the Book. And so, when thinking about the Meiji Restoration particularly from the perspective of literature, orthography, scripts around East Asia, what do we see?

PK: Oh the Meiji Restoration is a[n] elephant in the room that I’ve always tried to avoid and pretend I don’t see.

TG: (Laughter) Okay.

PK: And this really starts with when I began with my doctoral work, Tristan. I was looking, at that time, at Meiji literature, and the more I read about Meiji literature, the more I found I didn’t like. And what I didn’t like was the fact that histories of modern Japanese literature started in year 0 (i.e. 1868), and histories of pre-modern literature stopped in that same year 0. Literature isn’t, unfortunately, an animal that follows the political dictates of chronology, so I felt very unsatisfied by this kind of consensus, which still, to some extent, exists. After all, big series of Japanese publications define koten as up to [the] Meiji Restoration and the modern kindai stuff, except I didn’t like that. It seemed to me, particularly in this field of literature, to be really unrealistic. And so, I was a bit perverse in framing my doctoral topic as one which focused on the early Meiji period, particularly a writer called Ozaki Kōyō (who lived from 1867 to 1903), and looking at his works in the light of what came before, trying to look at continuities. So that involved, for example, finding out what he read, finding out the kind of things he liked, and then seeing what kind of reflection of that I could see in his works. But at the same time, I wasn’t completely blind to the fact that there were some new developments in his work as well, so I was trying to get a more balanced view of the long 19th century in literary terms by ignoring the Meiji Restoration, which is the subject of these podcasts, so that’s not a very good start.

TG: (Laughter) So, what kind of continuities do we see then?

PK: The continuities start off with reading tastes, and there, there are some really good pieces of evidence because in 1890, one of the major magazines of the Meiji period Kokumin no Tomo (The Nation’s Friend) decided to do a survey of the reading tastes and likes of all the leading figures of the day. As far as I can remember, about a hundred responded to this, and over several issues of the magazine, we have the details of their likes and dislikes, including writers, but also politicians, a lot of people we think of being really committed to the modern in the Meiji period. And what do you know? Hardly any of them were reading what we are told were the leading works of Meiji fiction. Hardly any. What they’re all interested in is either Sinological classics (of course, they may just be doing this for show, but that’s what they put down) or the literary bestsellers of the earlier part of the 19th century in Japan.

So, that made me think that there is something pretty concrete you can get hold of in the way of evidence, and I tried to back that up by, for example, looking at the reprinting history of those same classics of the early 19th century: works like the historical novels of Bakin for example, the romantic novels of Tamenaga Shunsui, and then I found that they were reprinted [an] incredible number of times in the Meiji period. And it seemed to me that’s very unlikely to happen if there aren’t a lot of people clamouring to read them. But then you compare that, again, with the classics of modern literature, and you find they’re issued once/twice, and that’s it. They’re not actually attracting as many readers as the previous generation of writers, so that was one bit of pretty concrete evidence that I found that showed a continuity of literary tastes that took some time to shift.

TG: In that same light, I was always fascinated in thinking about the fact that Ōkuma Shigenobu called his own house the Tsukiji Ryōzanpaku, with this reference to this great Chinese classic. And so, it was his compound in Tsukiji, where Inoue Kaoru was renting from him for a while, and so they talked about how Itō Hirobumi and Inoue Kaoru would get together and Ōkuma would be there. And you can imagine these three great reformers, right, that we talk about plotting out all of these modernist reforms for Meiji Japan, and they’re doing it in a place that has this reference to this great Chinese classic.

PK: Plus what are they writing their notes in? They’re not writing it in a recognizable form of Japanese. They’re writing, essentially, kanbuntai.

TG: Right.

PK: Japanese with a heavy admixture of kanji, and essentially kanbuntai Japanese grammatical elements. So, this just doesn’t look the modernity that you and I learned about when we were undergraduates. (Laughter)

TG: (Laughter) So, you mentioned this survey. What year was that?

PK: That was in 1890.

TG: 1890. And so, I mean this was 1890: there’s already been somewhat of a conservative resurgence, perhaps. Maybe a return to Confucian education. Is it possible that it’s this idea of “this is what the Meiji learned man is supposed to be reading”?: [meaning] the Confucian texts or the traditional texts.

PK: Yes, that could be so, but you have to look at the reprinting history as well, and there are a whole lot of other measures that I managed to sift through. It looks pretty stable to me, and when you’re looking with a longue durée over the Meiji period, it’s really sometime before these very unfamiliar forms of literature that are Western novels that are translated into Japanese begin to attract a lot of people for their literary qualities. Because as you know, in the first half of the Meiji period, a lot of the translations may be of literary works like the novels of Disraeli, for example. Interesting novels, but they’re not being translated as literature. They’re being more translated for their political nuances. And so, you know, you could recognize that a oh, translation’s been done here, but when you compare it with the original, all the more descriptive passages are being cut because that’s not what we’re going to focus on. We want to focus on the political bits. There’s a clear motive that’s skewing the nature of the translation you have here.

So I mean in general, the Meiji Restoration has been something that I’ve tended to ignore an awful lot, but more recently, while I haven’t changed my stance very much, what I have begun to notice is some areas where there are discontinuities, things that happen for the first time in the Meiji period. One very obvious example that’s closely connected with Meiji is the revival of the household laws, the kōshitsu tenpan, which was enshrined in law in 1895 ([if I’m] not mistaken) in which for the first time, women are excluded from the throne. That was a move which went against tradition, and marks a departure from practice up until the late 18th century. So there, you can see something has quite definitely changed.

And another respect, which has attracted my attention quite recently, is the consequences for Emperor Meiji himself of the changes that were taking place. As we all know, in 1868, the so-called Charter Oath was issued, which called on Japanese people to seek knowledge throughout the world. Now, we usually assume that means the kind of people who went on the Iwakura Mission, for example, and the other people who went out as students. But there are two examples of members of the imperial family who followed that injunction very very quickly. One of them was Prince Kachō (Kachōnomiya) who set off for the United States with the aim of becoming a military officer and went to Brooklyn College for a year first to polish up his English, and then went on to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, where he pursued his studies for a couple of years. Unfortunately, he fell ill, went home in 1873, and then died in 1876.

But the other one, Prince [Higashikuni] who was also essentially a cousin of Emperor Meiji went to England and spent two years studying and partying by all accounts. And it did his career a lot of good as it did most Japanese who went abroad for a time. He ended up as a field marshal in the army. So, you’ve got two examples of members of the imperial household themselves quite closely related to Meiji who are actually going overseas. It was a long time before a reigning emperor himself went abroad but of course, Hirohito (the future Shōwa tennō) did make a trip while he was still crown prince.

But the converse was true as well, and that, in a sense, created more problems because in 1869 April, Harry Parkes who was a British minister in Tokyo told the government and told the imperial household that a son of Queen Victoria was coming to Japan, so they better make some proper arrangements to greet him. This, as you can imagine, caused some consternation, but it was decided to accord him the honour of an official state visit, which of course, was the first time any such event had happened in Japan. This is still 1869, one year after the so-called “Restoration,” and they were looking around for some place to put this young prince up. It was Prince Alfred who was the second son of Queen Victoria. He was a naval captain, and he was commander of his own frigate, the Gallanteer, which was going to be putting into Japan.

So, they decided to take hold of a bit of land, which was surrounded by water, but which is now (you can probably imagine it yourself) the garden you look down on when you’re setting off from Hamamatsuchō on your way to Haneda Airport on the monorail. That place, the Hama Rikyū Gardens (as it’s now called) was a Tokugawa-period palace that had been taken over by Katsu Kaishū at the very end of the Tokugawa period to be the headquarters of the short-lived bakufu navy, and that structure, then, the Meiji government took over, added a lot of frills such as nice futsuma, some nice paintings and made that into the first facility to receive foreign visitors (the Enryōkan as it was called). And that was a place where Prince Alfred put up. He was the Duke of Edinburgh, second son of Queen Victoria, so really quite senior member of the British royal family, and a lot had to go into how to deal with this first encounter with other royalty in the terms of not only the luxuriousness of the facilities, the arrangements for a face-to-face audience with Emperor Meiji, but also, protection. I mean, these were still dangerous days, of course, in Tokyo and so, whenever he went out, he had, as the account describes it, 32 yakunin, 2 sworded men with him to make sure nothing untoward happened.

The account of the audience with Meiji is also interesting because it specifies that Meiji stood up, and that the two of them greeted each other as equals. And the other thing that was a first for Meiji (a first, actually, for I imagine, any Japanese reigning emperor) was that the interpreting was not done by a Japanese, but by Bertie Mitford, who was attached to the British legation which was still in Yokohama at the time. And so, for the first time, Meiji heard English being interpreted into Japanese by the young Mitford, and then there followed the normal kind of receptions that follow. So, this was the first of a lot of direct connections between the Japanese imperial family, which had, hitherto, none with any other ruling family elsewhere, with, in this particular case, the British royal family.

You used the word “Restoration” a moment ago, and one of the things that occurred to me when I was thinking about how I was going to answer your questions, Tristan, was how unsatisfactory this word is…

TG: (Laughter) Okay.

PK: …and it’s, of course, come out as a translation of fukkō, which was a word that was very commonly used in the early Meiji period, but that didn’t get stuck as the name of these events. But the English translation of it has got stuck. I read through all the various language Wikipedia entries for [the] Meiji Restoration to see what it’s called in other languages. Of course in Chinese and Korean, it’s still called Meiji Ishin, with variations of pronunciation, but essentially, the four kanji are used as the name for it. So, that’s not a problem. In most European countries, essentially, there’s a translation of “Restoration,” with a few exceptions. In Italian, it’s usually called a “renewal,” which is a bit more accurate in terms of a translation of ishin, and there may be a few other languages that I didn’t manage to find. But somehow, the English “Restoration” has become set, and I’ve always thought: I really want to get rid of this term. Because one of the first questions that students inevitably asked me was: “What actually was being restored?” So just hang on, we’re not talking about Restoration over here. But I think we’re stuck with that, don’t you?

TG: Why is that?

PK: I think “Restoration” was one of the ways in which what happened was perceived by Western observers on the site in the late 19th century. One of the ways of interpreting it was to see “the tycoon” being dethroned, as they would say, and the emperor restored to power. It might make a certain sense. Of course, with our advantage of a lot of hindsight (150 years of hindsight now), it doesn’t really look that way. There’s actually a lot of continuity, but it didn’t necessarily look that way to writers who had travelled from North America or Canada or Europe and resided in Meiji Japan.

And of course, that’s not really how Japanese thinkers saw it either. Even “fukkō doesn’t really equate to “Restoration,” so it looks more like a[n] analogy with British history perhaps, and maybe the restoration of the monarchy in France, as if an analogy that’s familiar is being applied to the very unfamiliar events of Meiji Japan.

TG: I wonder if there’s something about European ideas of modernity, and this kind of epistemology of modernity as something that is bringing back the past. Is this a particularly European idea of modernity and revolution that is now being imposed on the Meiji Restoration (or this moment of whatever we want to call it in 1868)?

PK: I think for European observers, the emperor system, the very existence of the emperor was largely invisible. What they saw as the manifestation of power all came from the shōgun, whom they call “the tycoon.” So, you can see how they might conceive emperors as having been essentially pushed into the background and then restored to their proper position. But as we all know, that [was] not exactly what happened.

TG: There is something to be said about a gesture towards bringing back some of the old court forms, right?

PK: Yes.

TG: And bringing back the old court dress, resuscitating the Daijōkan system that hadn’t really been in use since the Heian period.

PK: Right.

TG: One of the more fun things that I noticed, one time, reading through early Meiji court documents: all of these guys Itō Hirobumi, Ōkuma Shigenobu all adopt names like Fujiwara something or Taida something or other. And it’s fun to think of them play-acting royalty. So, there is at least some kind of gesturing.

PK: But when it came to dress, however, it was different. They didn’t adopt Heian court dress. I mean, they were very particular with their dress, and most Japanese, when they traveled abroad in the 1850s and 1860s, suddenly became aware of the fact that they were wearing Japanese dress. It was just clothes you wear, but when they found themselves being not necessarily laughed at, but certainly stared at on the streets of London or Marseilles or New York because they were walking around with their chonmage and their two swords at their sides (I’m surprised they would rather carry the swords, but they were carrying swords), and then they began to realize that they stood out.

They immediately (in the case of the students who were in England) went to tailors and had themselves kitted out in what they saw would make them more invisible, and that becomes a pattern for all the Meiji leaders. They dress themselves up first of all in Western civilian clothes, and then increasingly, of course, you get more and more gaudy military uniforms. And the Meiji emperor himself becomes recreated as essentially a military leader, at least in terms of dress, not necessarily in terms of actual command.

TG: There’s a great anecdote from the San Francisco newspapers. When the Iwakura Mission arrives in San Francisco, they’re describing this Japanese man who has a larger than average-sized head. And they’re talking about Iwakura Tomomi and so, there’s this famous photograph of all of the Iwakura Mission ambassadors: Kido Takayoshi’s wearing a suit, Itō Hirobumi’s wearing a suit, and Iwakura Tomomi’s still in his court dress.

PK: Yes.

TG: But as the newspaper tells us, he went and got his head sized to get a Western style bowler hat. (Laughter)

PK: (Laughter)

TG: As the writer says: “Even this move is indicative of Japanese progress.”

PK: (Laughter) Yes, yes.

TG: So, if “Restoration” is an unsatisfactory term as we’ve been talking about, what would you suggest as an alternative?

PK: I would go for “Renovation.”

TG: “Renovation.”

PK: Yes.

TG: Not “Revolution.”

PK: “Revolution” is what, of course, Thomas Huber went [with]. You found it a lot in Soviet writings on Japanese history. That’s what they preferred to call it: the Meiji Revolution. And occasionally, you find “Meiji Kakumei” in Japanese writings, but it’s probably going a bit too far to call it a “revolution.” And that’s not really what ishin means. I mean if we’re going to use a term, then perhaps it ought to be close to the word that is the current term in Japan. I mean in a sense, Meiji Ishin has the same sort of problems with “tennō,” and if you’re talking among people who know Japanese, it’s so much easier just to refer to “Tennō Meiji Ishin than to start resorting to unsatisfactory translations.

TG: Is that to say, then, that Meiji was not revolutionary?

PK: Do you mean Meiji himself?

TG: Or the Meiji period.

PK: I would argue that it was not revolutionary because not a great deal changed in a dramatic sort of way. You can’t really point to dramatic events like the kind that are associated with the revolution in Iran, let alone those in Russia or in France, for example. So that element is missing, and in fact, in many ways, seen as a revolution, 1868 is a bit of an anticlimax.

TG: Right.

PK: Okay, you’ve got a bit of fighting at Toba-Fushimi, but it’s a couple of men and a dog who are injured.

TG: (Laughter)

PK: I mean there’s not a lot going on there.

TG: (Laughter) Yes. So in that case, you mentioned some continuities, but some discontinuities as well, so if we’re trying to identify a Meiji transition, when is that transition?

PK: Okay, well that’s the interesting question. This is a question I often used to set my students, and without giving them a very clear, good answer.

TG: (Laughter)

PK: When you look at Beasley’s book, which is called The Meiji Restoration (it’s a massive term), but it’s not actually about the Meiji Restoration.

TG: (Laughter)

PK: It’s about a long span of time that covers some 20-25 years.

TG: Right.

PK: That’s what most people who write about the Meiji Restoration end up doing, but say if you write a book about the Russian Revolution, you could spend a lot of time on 1917, and maybe not a lot more on the years of either side (a little bit perhaps). Ditto with the French Revolution.

But the Meiji Restoration, if looked at as an event, nothing much happens in 1868 that you can really point to. It happens over the next couple of, and to some extent, over the previous years. If you think of Japanese starting to go abroad, well that’s happening in the 1850s, and that’s in a sense when the beginnings of direct first-hand knowledge acquire through several years of tough living in unfamiliar environments. That’s when that starts becoming acquired, and those who have that knowledge, that experience, then find that they can lever it into positions of at least considerable influence if not eminence when they get back, particularly in the Meiji period.

So you know, that’s happening before. And it takes some time to get the administrative rearrangements right in the Meiji period as you know, as anybody who has worked with early Meiji sources finds, you come across the names of prefectures that you’ve never heard of that lasted for a couple of months, and before it was then reabsorbed. So, the administrative chaos of the first couple of years must have been a nightmare to live through.

I’ve often thought, though I’m not going to put this in practice (this is not a commitment), that it’d be very interesting to pick one of those early years, say ‘69 or ‘70 and just explore all the things that happened in that one year, rather like that interesting book about Ming China, picking on A Year of No Significance. You can pick on 1870 as a year of no significance, and see what  actually is happening in terms of the administrative level, the changes which are pretty constant and evolving throughout the year. It must have been very disconcerting and unnerving for those who were trying to administer, trying to get used to the new system, and finding that the rules were being changed under their feet as they moved along. And at the bottom level, seeing how these changes were impacting ordinary people whose livelihoods have been taken away by steam trains, by rickshaws, by spinning machines, post office and all the rest of it.

TG: So for literature, you mentioned at some point, you get more Western style literature that comes in. Is this when that transition would happen from a literary standpoint?

PK: The transition from a literary [standpoint] is much more gradual. You get writers who are certainly reading some Western literature and in the early Meiji period, it has to be in the original, so you wondering what they’re exactly getting out of it. But what they do seem to be deriving is certain elements, which are new in terms of the kinds of plot they’re writing and the kind of setting.

So, there are much more urban novels set in a recognizable presence, the here and now, and it’s signalled by the nature of the buildings, the nature of the streets, place names and so on. They can be located in the Meiji period much more clearly. That wasn’t really so of Ozaki Kōyō and his fellow writers in the early stages. They were essentially writing Tokugawa period fiction, but somehow, it didn’t seem quite right to them and yet, that’s what the customers wanted. That’s what they were still managing to find as their writer’s trade that would bring in some money.

But it takes time for the new to become familiarized, and it takes time for readers, too, to become acquainted with new modes of description, new representation of dialogue, for example, because in Edo period fiction, a lot of the dialogue was very realistically represented rather like dialogue in playbooks with theatre, it represented as close as you could get speech without conventionalizing it, and even in some cases, including things like coughs and speech defects and so on. So, the attention to the oral experience of speech is really quite close to the theatre in a lot of Edo period fiction, but it becomes increasingly conventionalized in the course of the Meiji period, and you begin to lose that theatrical particularity. Certainly, by the time you get to Sōseki, it’s largely gone. It’s one of the features of Edo fiction that’s quite remarkable, and that gives you a sense of the sound quality of fiction, and that gradually tends to disappear in the course of the Meiji period.

There are other sorts of changes [as] well, but as I try to show in my thesis, which was perhaps a bit unrealistically focusing on the continuities rather than discontinuities, there are a lot of continuities that are going on, and that last, really, through until the early 1890s, perhaps a little bit later. And by that time, of course, there are books also being transformed by being printed with metal movable type, they’re becoming less attractive in terms of the quality of the paper, the handwriting doesn’t change because the standardized type and so on and so forth. So, the medium is changing quite rapidly as well as the message. It’s I think in 1890 that the last literary works are printed with movable type with woodblock illustrations, but that’s the last gasp of literary tradition in woodblock printing.

We’ve been talking about the high end of Meiji society, haven’t we? We’ve been talking about the emperor, we’ve been talking about the emperor’s cousins, and we’ve been talking about royal visitors, [we’ve] been talking about Itō Hirobumi, Ōkuma Shigenobu and all that lot. One of the things that struck me, but I’ve never done anything with it: when I was roaming through early Meiji newspapers working on my PhD dissertation many, many years ago was how much reporting of events like suicides, poverty, hardship there was, and I began to see a fairly dark side of early Meiji Japan that really has, to some extent, been airbrushed out of a lot of the history.

We tend to focus on the big name figures that you and I have been talking about, the ones who could see several ways forward and were thinking about their future, not those who have been left behind by the march of history. You see, some of those people in Higuchi Ichiyō’s novels, people who are struggling to survive, whose livelihoods have been taken away, who don’t really know where to turn, you see it also in those nice prints, which show battles between the new and the old…

TG: Right.

PK: …the battle between the old oil lamp and the new gaslamp, battle between the norimono haulers and then someone in a rickshaw, and all the rest of it.

TG: The Kaika Injun print, right?

PK: Exactly, yes. So, there are clearly a lot of people whose livelihoods are being taken away from them, and that’s something we tend to forget, but you can see the impact it made in the newspaper reports. These are just page 3 type of local incidents, small incidents. But as I went through page after page after page on the ghastly microfilm readers in the National Diet Library, I couldn’t help but noticing how many of these events there were, and how much of the early newspapers were full of these rather tragic events.

TG: And I think this is where the Jiyūminken Undō grows from in the 1880s. Yes, there is something about the early 1880s and the educational system and the high rates of literacy and the spread of newspapers allowing these ideas to float around. But there’s a fundamental consternation…

PK: Yes.

TG: in the countryside that fuels these people’s reactions to the state. It’s just coming to the forefront every once in a while in a new form, but it’s still…

PK: And some of it is taking advantage of the new media.

TG: Right.

PK: I mean, you get conservative Buddhist organizations that see the success of Christian magazines and Christian newspapers, and therefore launch their own magazines, which is something, of course, they haven’t ever considered doing before. And you find populist people like Sata Kaiseki become incredibly successful. He’s a kind of, I’m about to say Billy Graham-type figure. Maybe that’s not a false analogy. I mean, he’s clearly a very effective speaker in public. He attracts very large numbers of people. He’s a Buddhist priest, but he’s preaching a message, which is of resistance. He sees a lot of the changes as being fundamentally damaging to Japan’s essence as he sees it, he’s defending people whose livelihoods are being lost, and he becomes particularly well known for what he called or what was called by his attractors: the Ranpubōkokuron, the idea that the introduction of Western lamps is going to destroy Japan.

And the reports of his public speaking are of mass events. There are tens of thousands of people following him. He launches a newspaper. I mean again, he uses new media to get his message across. I mean, he wouldn’t have had to do that before, but now there are people who are trying to peddle new ideas using the new media, so people who want to peddle, also, the old ideas resort to the same means. And he’s very successful for a couple of years.

TG: Sounds a lot like Kita Ikki. I was just lecturing about him yesterday, and the same idea of restoring society for the people who have been left behind by the government to some extent.

PK: Yes, and that’s not a coincidence because I, for a while, was looking into Sata Kaiseki and his writings, and most of them were issued in the early Meiji period, and then he disappeared. When was it that there was a resurgence of interest in Sata Kaiseki’s ideas? Precisely the timing that Kita Ikki was active. There are quite a lot of articles, some reprints of some of his writings, that clearly touched a nerve again much later in the ‘30s. So, that’s really quite interesting. But back in the Meiji period, it’s again interesting that there are these grassroots movements which are resisting what we now see as the inevitable march of events in the early Meiji period, and that they’re, in some respects, very successful at getting a message across.

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening.


*Citation for this episode:

Peter Kornicki, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, April 13, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-24-prof-peter-kornicki-cambridge/.

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.